At the Marin County Free Library, it's as clear as the Kindles in people's hands what Santa brought to town.

Since the holidays, librarians have fielded a surge in questions from people eager to learn how to check out electronic books to their newfangled Nooks, iPads and especially the popular Kindles.

In Marin, the consortium of eight libraries that includes the Free Library saw the number of e-book check-outs bound from 1,623 in September to 4,082 in December, a 150 percent jump.

But no such flurry occurred in Sonoma County. The library system belongs to an increasingly small minority of public libraries that doesn't offer e-books, a service that's become standard at libraries across the country.

"We know people really, really want it and we are concerned because we are falling behind what other libraries are doing already," said Sandy Cooper, the library's director. "But if we are buying e-books then we are buying less of something else."

The challenge isn't so different from the one facing producers of content from newspapers to book publishers to movie makers - how to meet the yawning public appetite for online media and still sustain their old way of doing business.

Indeed it's a tough time for the library to expand offerings. All 13 branches of the Sonoma County Library closed from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2 to save payroll costs, the latest in a litany of cuts to balance its budget.

But Cooper said the library can't ignore the constant emails, Facebook posts and face-to-face inquiries inquiring about e-book availability.

The library has earmarked $15,000 for e-books and is looking for $10,000 more, enough to provide a starting selection of 1,000 e-books to complement its collection of nearly 650,000 books, 26,000 audio books and 26,000 videos.

E-books cost libraries roughly $20 to $30, a similar price to hardcovers.

Cooper said she hoped to have the program in place by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"It's sort of like squeezing blood from a turnip," she said. "But we know people want it so we are going to do the best we can."

Once in place, the library's e-book plan would allow card holders to download books from home or anywhere else they have Internet access, much as they already can with audio books.

Late fees would be a thing of the past — electronic copies automatically become inaccessible after the duration of the checkout period.

But the option won't free users from the wait lists that bedevil patrons eager to get a hold of the library's hottest titles in other formats.

As of Jan. 5, for example, nearly 330 people were on hold for the county library's 51 copies of John Grisham's "The Litigators," the most requested hardcover. More than 100 people were waiting for nine copies of Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," the most popular audio book. And 185 people were signed up for 17 copies of "The King's Speech," the most sought-after DVD.

Even in infinitely replicable digital form, profit-minded publishers limit how e-books can be shared — one licensed copy may be checked out to one user at a time, much like with printed books.

In Marin last week, there were 193 holds on 66 hardcover copies of "Death Comes To Pemberley," P.D. James' murderous and unofficial sequel to "Pride and Prejudice."

Just eight people, meanwhile, were waiting for two digital copies of the same book, but that actually works out to a less attractive ratio for borrowers.

Nor are e-books available for all titles. Anyone wanting to read Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of Steve Jobs was left without a digital option — at least at from a library.

Its publisher, Simon & Schuster, doesn't offer its book to libraries in electronic format. In November Penguin USA announced it was pulling its new e-book from libraries.

"It is a source of frustration for patrons," said Amanda Jacobs Foust, electronic services librarian for the Marin County Free Library. "They don't always understand why books are not available."

For all the relative newness of e-books, the challenges of accommodating them aren't that different from previous technological changes libraries have faced, like moving from LP to CD, said David Dodd, the library's collection's manager.

There's some advantages to be being a late adopter, he said. He was working at the San Rafael library in 2009 when it first began offering e-books. Three years later, many of the questions he faced then about differing file formats and platforms have been resolved.

And when Sonoma County begins offering e-books, he won't have to contend with a steady line of questions about why books aren't available for the Kindle. Amazon made the highly popular device open to libraries in September.

"I think it's been a question of letting the playing field settle out a bit," said Dodd, adding that the rise in requests combined with the improvements in service make now an ideal moment to proceed.

"You just have to pick your time and go for it," Dodd said. "We have had so much demand. It's not really an option. You have to give the people what they're asking for. We are the public library."

You can reach Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.